Broadcasting (Deaf People)
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : I wish to present a petition that is part of a national appeal by 150,000 people who believe that, without adequate subtitling and sign language, deaf people are deprived of the most modern and powerful means of communication for information, entertainment and education. They are right. My good and hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) and some of his constituents wish to be associated with the petition, which reads :
The broadcasters are not providing complete access for deaf television viewers, for example, with subtitles or sign language ; the number of viewers affected are at least four million ; deaf viewers, as equal members of the general public, are entitled to equal access to television programmes.
Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House will ensure that legislation be passed placing an obligation on television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using Teletext subtitles, sign languague or other means and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.
And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Speaker : The next petition is to be presented by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). I understand that there are a large number of signatures--up to 100 boxes. In order to protect the business of the House, which today is precious Back-Bench Members' time, I have had to place some limit on the number of supporting pages that can be brought into the Chamber, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman will inform the House of the total number of signatures that the petition bears.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : I wish to present a petition on behalf of ambulance staff, which is signed by 4.5 million electors. Yesterday, when it was presented to myself and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, it took six stretchers to convey the boxes into the House. Without questioning your ruling, Mr. Speaker, its effect is that the pile of boxes presented in the Chamber this morning is but a quarter of the total number of signatures collected in the petition.
Column 1294It is the largest petition presented to Parliament since the new rules were devised 150 years ago. The petition reads :
that the Ambulance dispute is in need of urgent resolution. Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House urge the Secretary of State for Health to use the good offices of ACAS and agree to arbitration in order to end this unnecessary dispute : and urge the Secretary of State to provide a pay formula for the Ambulance Service similar to that for the other emergency services. The record size of the petition is a powerful statement of public support for the dedication and courage of ambulance staff. It shows the public dismay that they are still denied arbitration. Its presentation is timely in that it comes just before the busiest week in the year for this vital emergency service.
I appeal to the House and to the Government to listen to this magnificent plea by the public, who need their ambulance service, for a just and urgent settlement to the dispute.
To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) : I beg to present a petition from Mr. Alan Roberts, himself profoundly deaf, which is part of a national petition presented by the Deaf Broadcasting Council. Its terms are identical to those of the petition already presented by the right hon. Member for Stoke- on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley).
To lie upon the Table.
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Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I beg to present a petition signed by Mrs. G. Menhinnick of Aberdeen and by 4,000 other people from places stretching from Aberdeen to Armagh, and from London to Londonderry, pleading for the cause of the deaf.
To lie upon the Table.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : I present two petitions that are also part of the national campaign by the Deaf Broadcasting Council. One petition has more than 1,000 signatures and originates from my constituency, Moray, and from others such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), who is present in the Chamber. The other petition has some 4,000 signatures, which were collected in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. I acknowledge the honour of presenting the petitions to the House, and, like the petitioners, humbly pray that the cause that is the subject of the petitions, will be recognised by the Government.
To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : I wish to present a petition from the people of Nottingham, North and from others nearby in respect of the television service provided to the deaf. The petition reads :
The people of the constituency of Nottingham, North and elsewhere showeth that the broadcasters are not providing complete access for deaf television viewers--for example, with subtitles or sign language. The number of viewers thus affected is at least four million. Deaf viewers, as equal members of the general public, are entitled to equal access to television programmes. Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House will ensure legislation be passed placing an obligation on television channel operators to make their programmes more accessible to deaf people by using teletext, subtitles, sign language, or other means, and to reach complete coverage by a fixed date.
It is a great privilege for me to present that petition to the House.
To lie upon the Table.
Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich) : It gives me great pleasure to present a petition on behalf of more than 100 residents of Greenwich and their concerned relatives and friends, who have an interest in deaf people- -who at present feel that they are excluded from participating fully in television viewing. My petition is part of the general petition being presented today.
I share the concerns of my constituents. Deafness is an isolating disability. Not only does the condition itself present special problems, but attitudes to deafness because of its invisibility make those problems much worse. I share the concerns expressed by my petitioners and by other right hon. and hon. Members, who hope that the necessary amendments will be made to the Broadcasting Bill. To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : My understanding is that the number of signatures to the petition concerning the ambulance dispute that were brought into the Chamber represented one third or less of the total number of signatures that have been collected on street corners and outside supermarkets throughout the length and breadth of the land. At school, many of us learned of the effect of petitions in securing the vote in this House, vividly illustrated by coachloads of petitions arriving here. That may even have been one of the reasons why the rules were changed. Nevertheless, petitions are, and always have been, one of the ways that ordinary people can make their views known to this House. They have not been given an opportunity properly to do so this morning.
Mr. Speaker : Order. I cannot have that. How many boxes of signatures were brought into the Chamber is irrelevant. The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) presented a petition on behalf of 150,000 people, but he held only a few of its pages in his hand. In terms of our procedure, it is not necessary visibly to demonstrate the number of signatures collected by bringing them all into the Chamber. What is relevant is what is stated in the petition, and the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) explained that his petition was signed by 4.5 million people.
Mr. Allen : With the greatest respect, Mr. Speaker, the physical size of the petition and its visual impact--[ Hon. Members-- : "Ah!"] Yes, I am aware that Conservative Members would not like to see televised a large petition requesting a settlement of the ambulance dispute. Nevertheless, the size of that petition is an important factor. It is one of the largest ever presented to this House. To remove the rights of the majority of the signatories to that petition to have their petition brought into this Chamber is detrimental--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman, because he is taking up the time of Back Benchers. It is not a question of a visual impact. We must differentiate between a demonstration of the kind that the hon. Gentleman mentioned and parliamentary practice. It has never been our practice to have that kind of demonstration. We proceed by debate, not be demonstration, and in presenting his petition, the hon. Member for Livingston stated the very large number of signatories to it.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : I do not challenge your ruling, Mr. Speaker, but-- [Interruption.] If some of the yobs on the Conservative Benches listened rather than sneered, the House might make better progress.
As a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, I should like to raise with you, Mr. Speaker, one or two points and ask you to reflect upon them. You said, Mr. Speaker, that it is your duty to protect the business of this
Column 1297House. I agree. You know, Mr. Speaker, that there is no one more anxious to assist you in that than myself, because you have frequently referred to some of my methods as maintaining good order and discipline--not always by the most popular means.
I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that the business of the House includes the presentation of petitions in full, if that is the wish of the petitioners. The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) concerning the size of the ambulance dispute petition and the effort that has gone into collecting those signatures nationally are most important.
As to the dissent expressed by Government Members in seeking not to allow the size of the petition to be visually demonstrated, I can only agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. If we allow television cameras in this Chamber, the electorate should be allowed to see what happens in this Chamber and--
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose --
Mr. Speaker : Well, I am constantly enjoined not to take account of the television cameras, but it is true that the television cameras should now show what happens in the Chamber. Nevertheless, I am concerned--as is the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), as a member of the Procedure Committee--to protect the interests of the whole House. The wise thing would be for the Procedure Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a distinguished, important and influential member, to consider the matter in terms of the future. I ask the House to reflect on what might happen to our procedures if the presentation of large petitions became a regular practice. Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) rose --
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) rose --
Mr. Frank Cook rose --
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) rose
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It would seem from the words of the hon. Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) that, although the presentation of petitions is one of the most cherished rights of Back Benchers, certain hon. Members are more concerned this morning with providing an event for the media than with seriously influencing the House.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House exists to protect the rights of the people of this country, who are not expected to modify their demands in the interests of parliamentary business on any one day. Your judgment, or decision, and subsequent announcement, Mr. Speaker, sets an absolute precedent in the history of parliamentary procedure.
Column 1298When petitions were initiated, it no doubt annoyed the King very much that he had to listen to what was said by his subjects ; he probably regarded that as a great embarrassment. The right was won, however, although it fell into desuetude because no one took any notice of petitions. People popped them into the box and told their constituents that they had done so ; sometimes the petitions were presented in the House.
There is no shame in referring to the televising of the House : Hansard also covers its proceedings. Now, for the first time, people can see the link between what they do and what happens here, and if that link is broken on the ground that it interferes with the order of business, it is an affront to parliamentary democracy.
Mr. Speaker rose--
Mr. Benn : I do not wish to give offence to you, Mr. Speaker ; I wish to assert an ancient right. The fact is that three quarters of a million people who signed that petition believing that it would be presented physically to Parliament have been told today that, because of the business of the House, it cannot be brought in. If 4.5 million people had signed a petition in Prague or Warsaw, all the news media in Britain would have featured programmes about it for a week.
Mr. Speaker : No. The right hon. Gentleman, whose historical memories and judgment we all respect, should reflect on the nature of the ancient custom of presenting petitions. I am seeking to protect that. Whenever what may be considered an abuse occurs, new rules are introduced.
Mr. Speaker : Order. I agree, and am anxious to preserve this ancient practice, but it has always been the custom to place petitions in the Bag, and it is patently not possible to place 100 boxes of petitions in the Bag.
Our practice today is really a symbolic procedure. As I have said, the number of petitions brought into the Chamber is irrelevant. The televising of the House may well provide a visual demonstration of the procedure, but the hon. Members for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) correctly stated the number of signatures, and the number of boxes that is brought in does not really matter.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have the highest regard for the tradition of presenting petitions in the House--and, indeed, for the ambulance men whose action prompted today's petition. Is it not the case, however, that you are faced with the difficult task of balancing the rights of petitioners with those of hon. Members? It is particularly regrettable--and, I am sure, would not be appreciated by the ambulance men--that, on a day devoted to Back-Bench motions, the Opposition Front Bench should try to take time from Back Benchers.
Column 1299Mr. Skinner : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that it is all a matter of judgment. The television argument can be looked at both ways. An experimental period lasting a few months has now begun, after which the House will make a decision. Surely this is neither the time nor the place for a decision to cut the number of petitions about such a sensitive issue as the case of the ambulance crews, which is a political hot potato both inside and outside the House. Contrary to what you said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the fact that the cut has happened during the experimental period is, in a sense, due to the intrusion of the television cameras. It has been said that business has been disrupted by petitions, and such procedures can inconvenience many people, but I would argue that private Bills offend many people and could also be regarded as an intrusion. Indeed, I have said as much many times.
There are two reasons why today's judgment should not have been made. First, the cameras are here and it looks as though you, Mr. Speaker, have acted in a certain way because they are here ; secondly, this was not just a run-of-the-mill all-party petition, but one that represented the views of the Opposition versus those of the Government.
Mr. Speaker : Order. Let me repeat--I think that the whole House will understand the point--that this is a debating Chamber, where we argue out our differences. That is the object of the petition presented by the hon. Member for Livingston this morning. He put his case very strongly, and I have no doubt that the 100 boxes contained a great many, but not all the signatures : that is not in dispute. I repeat, however, that it is not absolutely necessary to bring all of them into the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman placed the top sheet of his petition in the Bag, which is proper parliamentary procedure.
Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, today's business is a motion on an important topic, set down in my name. I thank you for the protection that you have attempted to give me- -and, through me, all Back Benchers whose day for debate this is--against what is evidently an organised attempt by Opposition Members to frustrate the order of business.
It is extraordinary that Opposition Members should apparently be far more interested in debating whether a
Column 1300few dozen cardboard boxes should be brought into the Chamber than in debating the future of Socialism. [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker : Order. I think that it would be wise, and would protect the procedures of the House, if this whole matter of petitions were drawn to the attention of the Procedure Committee. I am very willing to be guided by the Committee, which is already considering the number of petitions that may reasonably be presented on any one day. I think that its scope should be widened to enable it also to consider the number of boxes that may be brought into the Chamber on any one day.
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) : On a separate point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in order for me to draw to the House's attention the death last night of my predecessor, Laurie Pavitt? He first came to the House in 1959 as Member for Willesden, West and subsequently served as Member for Brent, South until the last general election. He was a doughty champion of the National Health Service, and will be remembered with warm affection by hon. Members on both sides of the House. His life represented all that is best in Socialism--peace, justice and joy. He was a warm and kind man, and I know that the House will wish to pass on its condolences to his widow Rose and his two children.